By Diego Morilla
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez are not likely to fight each other anytime soon. But if we're lucky, we may end up getting the next best thing when it comes to all-Mexican showdowns sometime in the not-so-distant future.
And it all may hinge on the result of this Saturday's fight. Mexico's next big star Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez will be facing Colombian gatekeeper Fulgencio Zuñiga (27-9-1, 24 KO) in a scheduled 10-round super middleweight bout on HBO Latino (9:45 PM ET/PT) from the Alamodome, in San Antonio, Texas. It may very well be Ramirez's last step on his way to a title fight – and an eventual clash against Chavez Jr. for a great amount of national bragging rights.
For years, Mexican boxing fans have waited to see Chavez Jr. and Canelo face each other in a winner-takes-all, Aztec Stadium-worthy mega fight. However, weight and contractual issues have conspired to frustrate the chances of seeing this fight come to fruition.
But in Ramirez, Mexican fans may finally have their new dream foe for the "Son of the Legend." And though it may take a while for the sport's Latino fan base to demand a Chavez Jr.-Ramirez matchup, it could end up being more than worth the wait.
The most essential tools to become an exciting Pay-Per-View fighter are already in Ramirez's arsenal: height, wingspan, power, athleticism, room to accommodate even more poundage to become a threat at 175 pounds and beyond, and the one trademark trait that every Mexican fighter should posses: a numbing body punch that can wear down and ultimately destroy any opponent. A tool that could eventually make his dream match against Chavez Jr. a record-breaking fight in the body punching stats department.
Right now, Ramirez (29-0, 23 KO), of Mazatlán, Sinaloa and nicknamed "Lefty," is sitting comfortably somewhere in the top three of every major sanctioning body at 168 pounds, and it is just a matter of time (and politics, yes) before he can challenge for one of the titles out there.
But first he'll have to pass a stern test in Zuñiga, who in spite of his 37 years of age is a kill-or-be-killed type of fighter. He relishes his role as an underdog – one he's played many times throughout his career.
It took two superb, hard-punching champions in Kelly Pavlik and Lucian Bute to stop him, and he went the distance with KO artists Tavoris Cloud, Thomas Oosthuizen and James DeGale. In sum, Zuñiga is a tough competitor who will not settle for going the distance with a future star. The Barranquilla native is a capable upset-minded foe.
At the very least, Zuñiga will be checking Ramirez's somewhat leaky defense with enough bad intentions to put the young contender on notice. He'll need to make a handful of improvements if he intends to measure himself against the top of the crop in a talented and diverse division that includes Anthony Dirrell, Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, Andre Ward and new arrivals Robert Stieglitz, Felix Sturm and many others.
Passing this one test satisfactorily should be plenty for Ramirez at this stage of his career, but the way in which he wins will also count, as he enters the most scrutinized part of his career, now as a bona fide headliner.
It is true that his defense is not at the world-class stage yet, but his chin and his youth can make up for that while he develops into a more complete fighter, and there is no better defense than a good offense to keep his foes at bay while he gets his act together. And Ramirez is all about sustained offense, from bell to bell.
Even though he is still merely at the gates of the proverbial "next level" and although it's absurdly early for this kind of prediction, it is within the realm of possibility that Ramirez could one day become Mexico's best-ever fighter above 154 pounds, which seems to be the country's historic ceiling in terms of weight divisions. (This is in contrast to its rich history in the lower weights where it boasts some of the greatest talents ever to step into the square circle.)
In that spirit, Zuñiga may represent the first step in Ramirez's second, most challenging portion of his career, but a fighter's abilities are often not evaluated only on the level of opponents but rather on the impression they are able to leave in the ring. And Ramirez has been championship-level impressive in too many of his fights to be ruled out solely based on his level of opposition so far. In this fight, many of the still unanswered questions about his potential may be answered in definitive fashion.
In the co-main event of the night, two-time Mexican Olympian Oscar Valdez will be putting his unbeaten record on the line against the dangerous Alberto Garza (26-8-1, 21 KO) in a scheduled 8-rounder.
Valdez (13-0, 11 KO), of Nogales, Sonora, is a rarity among Mexican fighters with stellar amateur pedigrees. Usually, the common path for young Olympians anywhere south of the border is to turn professional and start monetizing their skills right after their first (and only, most often) Olympic participation, but Valdez chose to stay in the amateur ranks for four more years. He was barely 18 years old in his first trip to the Olympics in Beijing 2008, so waiting until London 2012 (where he lost in the quarterfinals) was not too much a sacrifice for him.
And for all of his lack of success at the Olympic stage, he made up with a glowing international record representing his country in numerous competitions. He reached the two highest steps of the podium in most of those contests, which in turn led to a bidding war for his services at the professional level.
True to his competitive nature, Valdez has been climbing the ladder carefully but firmly in the pro ranks, with a few respectable foes already listed in his W column. And now, the prospect of facing a proven, hard-punching trial horse in Garza – a former title challenger who's coming off of two grueling, full-distance bouts against heavy punchers Jose Pedraza and Billy Dib – seemed to be the logical next step for Valdez, who has shown an enormous potential so far.
Whether a victory over Garza leads to a title shot in the near future remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Valdez will not linger around for another 4 years to get his chance to grab the elusive gold in the professional ranks, and his imminent assault on the 10-round level of competition after this challenge should provide further clues about his desire to become one of Mexico's next stars in the years to come.